Of all the crazy crime stories in New York, it remains one of the craziest.
On Aug. 22, 1972, John Wojtowicz, a 27-year-old Vietnam vet, along with a friend, an 18-year-old ex-con named Salvatore Naturale, tried to rob a Chase Manhattan bank in Brooklyn when their getaway driver fled and the cops showed up.
The robbery, which later inspired Sidney Lumet’s 1975 film “Dog Day Afternoon,” had been Wojtowicz’s idea. He wanted the money to help the man he called his wife pay for a $3,000 sex change operation. The botched holdup resulted in a 14-hour hostage standoff with police and was an instant news sensation, thanks in part to the mix of crime and sexuality as well as Wojtowicz’s larger-than-life personality.
The robbery ended violently, with Naturale shot dead during a getaway attempt and Wojtowicz sent to prison. Four years later, Al Pacino was nominated for an Academy Award for “Dog Day Afternoon,” a role that was based on Wojtowicz.
After a viewing of “Dog Day Afternoon” several years ago, directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren wondered if there wasn’t more to the story. In 2002, they looked up Wojtowicz, and to their surprise, they found him out of prison and living with his elderly mother in Brooklyn — not far from the site of the bank robbery that had made him famous. They met for a lunch that dragged on for nearly eight hours, as Wojtowicz shared story after crazy story of his life.
“He was just so unique and different and very in your face and funny and creepy and all kinds of things,” Keraudren recalled of their first meeting with Wojtowicz. “From the moment we saw him, we knew there was a much bigger story.”
It’s that bigger story that provides the backbone for “The Dog,” a documentary premiering Tuesday at the New York Film Festival that serves as something of a prequel to the real-life events that inspired “Dog Day Afternoon” and looks at how the film changed Wojtowicz's life.
Wojtowicz is the film’s narrator — and as a classic New York character, he retells his stories with such swagger that it’s often impossible to know whether you should believe him.
“You were always on your toes with him,” Berg admitted.
But as the filmmakers discovered, many of his stories did check out — including tales from his time in Vietnam, where 90 percent of his platoon was wiped out. It was there that Wojtowitz first discovered he was gay — and in 1969, after separating from his wife, he joined the early days of the gay rights movement in New York.
In 1971, Wojtowicz wed in one of the city’s first formal gay wedding ceremonies — decades before same sex marriage was legalized. The film includes footage of the wedding — which was to Ernest Aron, the man who later inspired him to rob the bank. The film also includes footage of his participation at a historic sit-in that year at the New York City Marriage Bureau, where gay rights activists protested the city clerk’s criticism of gay marriage ceremonies.
The film is careful never to cast Wojtowicz as being at the forefront of history, and it includes candid interviews with other people involved — including his mother, Terry, and his ex-wife, Carmen, offering their sides to his stories.
But, as Keraudren and Berg put it, Wojtowicz did live a life that at times seemed almost like a screwed-up take on “Forrest Gump” — in which he seemed to be always on the periphery of memorable events.
“He had this almost accidental role in history,” Berg said.
"The Dog" also looks at what happened after the bank robbery — focusing, in part, on Wojtowicz’s relationship with his mother, who never condemned him for his sexuality even in a period when New York City was far less accepting of homosexuality than today.
The film includes footage that presents a stark contrast between today’s world and what life was like back then for gay New Yorkers — including a shot of some of the nearly 1,000 people who gathered outside the bank on the day of the robbery shouting slurs at Aron and other gay men who showed up trying to convince Wojtowicz to surrender.
It also presents the complicated position that the bank robbery put the burgeoning gay rights community in. In Wojtowicz’s mind, he was a pioneer for gay rights — robbing a bank to help the man he loved obtain a sex change. But the gay rights community at the time saw him only as an embarrassment — a criminal who was giving their cause a bad name.
Still, Wojtowicz, who died in 2006 from cancer, brags in the film that he ultimately did get what he wanted. Two years after the robbery, Aron became Liz Eden thanks in part to the proceeds from selling the film rights to her part of the story in “Dog Day Afternoon.”
While the film focuses on the many dramas, it also shines a lens on the pure comedy of how Wojtowicz lived his life — including how “Dog Day Afternoon” affected him. After being released from prison, he shamelessly applied for a job at the same Chase Manhattan bank he robbed — arguing that it was an insurance policy against future robberies. When that didn’t work out, he led tours of the site, milking his 15-minutes of fame.
“I’m the bank robber,” he says at one point in the film. “(Expletive) Al Pacino.”
Even in his final days, Wojtowicz shows up outside the site of the bank, which closed many years ago. When a man on the street tells him he was there in the crowd outside on the night of the robbery, Wojtowicz grabs him in for a big hug — oblivious to the man’s obvious discomfort.
And that’s part of what the filmmakers hoped to capture in the documentary: Wojtowicz's larger than life personality, which helped him maintain relationships with people in spite of his many flaws.
“It’s not often that you come across someone who has such a big personality,” Berg said. “A lot of what people will find is how funny, how refreshing, how entertaining he is, but also, he has this strange spot in American culture. What we tried to do is take the audience on the ride we went on when we first met John … and what it was like for him to have this American classic film based on his story.”